"As we watched this terrible awe-inspiring sight, suddenly all lights went out and the huge bulk was left in black darkness, but clearly silhouetted against the bright sky . . . The huge ship slowly but surely reared herself on end and brought rudder and propellers clear of the water, till, at last, she assumed an absolute perpendicular position. In this amazing attitude she remained for the space of half a minute. Then, with impressive majesty and every-increasing momentum, she silently took her last tragic dive to seek a final resting place in the unfathomable depths of the cold gray Atlantic. "
From Commander Charles Lightoller's eyewitness account of the sinking of the Titanic.
From that April 1912 night onward, nothing has disturbed the repose of the legendary Titanic, no human eyes have ever viewed its sad wreckage. All that, however, is about to change, as not one but two rival groups are attempting to put together expeditions to photograph the remains of the most intoxicatingly romantic of all maritime disasters, now sunk 12,567 feet in that cold, gray Atlantic.
Up in Sausalito, a young promoter named Spencer Sokale and his partner, Joe King, jointly known as Big Events, say they lack only money to set their expedition in motion. "I stand sound everywhere but I don't have the dough," Sokale says. "What I need is an investor with a fever for the Titanic."
A continent away. Dr. Robert Ballard, an associate scientist at Massachusetts' Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, stands, if anything, even sounder.
An accomplished diver who specializes in the geological study of the ocean floor, Ballard is also the president of Seaonics International ltd., a firm formed with the express purpose of finding the Titanic. Other members of the team, chosen as carefully as Doc Savage's old crew, include Emory Krisof, a national Geographic photographer, William Tantum, vice president of the Titanic Historical Society, and independent film producer Alan Ravenscroft. Ballard says that he group also lacks nothing but necessary funds.
Not only are both groups well aware of each other, they once shared a loose alliance based on the quest for that money, estimated at between one and five million dollars. The alliance was never in a written contract, however, nd both sides differ on how binding it was and why it came apart.
A soft-spoken 32, Spencer Sokale seems an unlikely person to be searching for the Titanic. An unabashed promoter who started out selling hand-painted talks about his biggest owls, Sokale talks about his biggest purchase to date - surplus cable from the-Golden Gate Bridge.
"We cut it into sections, glamorized it and sold it nationwide as "Strands of History" in special numbered editions costing between $35 and $50. The venture was not as big a success as Sokale wanted because the bridge, ever conscious of its image, refused to let him sell the stuff in inexpensive keychains as he'd planned.
Hoping for a way to top that, Sokale was sitting in New York's Maxwell's Plum in the summer of 1976 when it hit him. "I was looking for a very promotable event," he says, "and I suddenly thought, 'Jesus, the Titantic!"
Not for nothing, after ll, has that ship intrigued everyone who hears its story. Three football fields long, the ship had a passenger list that was studded with names like Astor, Guggenheim, Straus, a collected wealth estimated at a quarter of a billion dollars. Yet on its maiden voyage, with the sea as calm as the reflecting pool by the Washington Monument, it struck and iceberg and sank, taking 1,503 people with it.
Sokale says he spent $25,000 of his own money trying to pull an expedition together and even contacted Clive Cussier, author of the best-selling novel, "Raise the Titanic," and got him to write a screen treatment about the search. Sokale also says that he was instrumental in bringing most of the group that became Seaonics togethr, only to have them go off partner. "All of a sudden", he says "we're being shafted."
Ballard, Seaonics' president remembers things differently. "I'd been working on the time since the Titanic since 1973, well before I met Spencer. I must have a dossier on it three feet high." Ballard acknowledges that he talked with Sokale about raising money for the project, but says that when Sokale "couldn't produce anything?" there was no reason to include him in the group because "I can't believe he's going to make any unique contribution."
One unstated reason for the split is apparently that he Seaonics people, though they are anxious that a potentially money-making film come out of the expedition, were put off by the casual, nonscientific style of the California promoters.
"We do not want a sensationalistic point of view," says Ballard, while King, Sokale's partner, says, "We just want to make some money and show people a good time. You don't like 'Big Events' for a name, we'll change it to 'Distringuished Scientific Events."
Whichever group gets the money first, the man who in all likelihood would be called upon to locate the ship in the 100 or so square miles of the North Atlantic off Newfoundland and where it is thought to be is Dr. Fred Spiess, director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography's Marine Physical Laboratory in San Diego.
"Over the last 10 years, we've developed the capability to tow sophisticated instruments very close to the ocean floor," Spiess explains. Sidelooking sonar, which can search that floor at the relatively fast speed of 1.5 nautical miles per hour, would be used to find the wreck. Then a separate acoustic-beam navigation system would keep track of the photographic and other instruments that would be dropped overboard.
The reasons for finding the Titanic are more than mere curiosity. For one thing, techniques developed and instruments used here can later be applied to othr scientific ventures. Also, the ocean at that depth is of great interest to researchers, who would like to know how the Titanic has influenced its previously pristine surroundings and how those surroundings have influenced the Titanic.
"It's an area of total darkness and freezing temperatures," says Ballard. "It's a preserving environment, with no plant life, no encrustation. The history of mankind is preserved in the deep sea.
"It borders on science fiction, so it is really hard for the lay person to comprehend that one can photograph there. However, I spend most of my time at 12,000 feet and come home for dinner."
At this time both Big Events and Seaonics are busy attempting to raise the money. Sokale has printed nifty stationery emblazoned with the ship's image and has placed ads in the international editions of the Wall Street Journal under the "Capital Wanted" heading. And Seaonics is attempting to sell a documentary TV series based on the other interesting deep-sea places the TItanic-finding equipment could be sent.
Though the expedition, which for weather reasons has to take place during the summer months, could possibly come off by next July, a mid-1980 starting date now looks more likely, by which time both factions may yet be working together.
Sokale, though he says he's talked to lawyer Melvin Belli about his rights, emphasizes, "I don't want it to come to that: I want to work together." And Ballard notes, "If they can secure funding and agree to a documentary film as opposed to a 'Towering Inferno,' I leave the door open."
Meanwhile, at 12,567 feet, a ship is waiting.